Sunday, 16 November 2014

You must rise and greet [them] from afar...

I wrote this experience for an Education Division meeting. Once again, I ended up not sharing it, but hey. The experience proper happened in the last three-four years, as in, my first years in the teaching profession, however in order to understand where I am coming from, I have to, once again, start with my childhood. There will be some overlap with other experiences, since the childhood was the same!

Here we go!

My name is Ewa and I am 29 years old. I was born in Sicily in a Buddhist family. My parents were penniless artists and I grew up surrounded by interesting stuff. I slept in the backstage of concerts and saw my mother enchanting a crowd while sitting on a six metres tall ladder, I started reading Shakespeare at eleven and lived mostly in a fantasy world, with my music, my drawings and my stories. I was happy in my world and mostly happy in my parents’ world, where most of their friends regarded me as the little prodigy who could converse like a grown-up at the tender age of six, but I was very miserable at school, where I had been relentlessly bullied by both students and teachers for as long as I can remember.

I hated school. I loved learning, but I hated having to go to school and constantly parade in front of people. I hated being the poorest of them all, and felt like everybody was acting from an invisible script that only I could not see. 

In those days, I used to say: “I’ll do anything, except teaching”. Try to understand me, though. I really did not have that many great examples. Our school system is based on failure and humiliation. As a nerd, and a highly intelligent one at that, I spent most of my school career being told by my teachers that I was indecently (direct quote) ignorant. I have known very little praise but constant criticism. The wonders of teachers raised in a fascist country.

As a result, I was utterly convinced I was stupid and what I did was never good enough.

My English teacher, whom I adored and asked to read my stories, towards the end of high school told me that I was never going to be good at English, and that I had to accept my limits. Aside from feeling a burning sense of betrayal, that dialogue was probably the start of me using the poison of anger, that had been happily festering inside me for all those years, in a positive way. (By the way, I speak English better than her now).

It is definitely thanks to the burning energy endlessly supplied by my anger that I breezed through my studies, achieving top marks in literally anything I did (including English), from Elementary school all the way through my teaching degree. I remember one of my best friends commenting that it was not humanly possible to finish our degree (Russian major) on time and with top marks. When I timidly reminded him that I had done it, he calmly said that I did not count. “You are a statistical impossibility, Candia, daimoku or not daimoku”. Ah, well.

So, fast forward a few years, I finally win this scholarship to come to the UK to work as an Italian language assistant, I realised that a) I kinda liked this teaching thing and b) it was actually relatively easy to get a teaching degree and then a job in the UK (unlike my country, where it is quite literally impossible. As in, literally not possible). Italian and Russian were not exactly popular, so I decided to brush up on my Spanish, I learnt French, and off I went. I completed my teaching degree and secured a job with no great difficulty. Studying has always been easy for me. Talking has always been extremely easy for me. Standing in front of a group trying to convey stuff and doing some acting at the same time turned out to be somewhat of a natural talent. 

Of course, I had the usual problems socialising on the PGCE course, and I experienced the same bullying that I had had to go through during school. I had moved country and it had apparently followed me! Sneaky, sly thing. By this time I had been practising correctly for about 12 years, studied an awful lot, participated to so many meetings I have lost count and done lilac like a mad ferret for about four years. Due to all of that, I did have the beginning of a foggy suspicion that all the bullying and the abuse (I also was in an abusive relationship for four years, was anorexic for about a year and, oh, yes, self-harmed for just about forever), all of the shebang could have something to do with karma. I talked myself into silencing that pesky little voice and carried on practising, doing lilac, etc, all the while thinking: “poor me, I am surrounded by bad people”.

So, I started my job. And I loved it. Having my own class and being part of something. Ah, the joy. Also, not being poor anymore. Being able to, you know, not have to rework my entire weekly budget to grab a coffee. Buy clothes in a place other than a charity shop. Most importantly, send money to my precious parents every month, so they don’t have to live in a grotty horrible place anymore (just before I started my training, my parents lost their house and were forced to live off the charity of a fellow member).

Life was awesome and I was so grateful. I had been chanting for financial security since the age of 12, when I started doing gongyo. However, the years of abject poverty had left me with a bit more than just the obsession with counting my pennies. 

The anger that had been my trusty companion for all those years, was still there and loathe to leave me.

One day, I was summoned to the office of my Induction mentor, and told that a few different people (names undisclosed) had expressed concern at the fact that I apparently shouted too much. My mentor made sure to reassure me that everybody thought I was a good teacher, that there was no doubt at all I would pass my induction, that everybody has something to work on at the start of their career, it was only a little thing.

Life became quite horrible for me after that. I had some incredibly challenging classes and my HoD was mostly absent due to some horrific family problems. When she was present, she was mostly shouting at students. Other teachers in my school also shouted at students. I, however, was quickly singled out as the shoutiest teacher. 

My feelings of worthlessness - yep, the same ones at the centre of that karma I had become so good at ignoring - came back with a vengeance.
The NQT came and went. Once again I passed it without a problem, I seemed to have a good reputation in the school for my teaching and my confidence in class, but all I could hear was the condescending attitude of my colleagues, the jokes and the jibes at how loud and shouty I was, culminating in a colleague I barely knew having a drunken go at me in the pub on the last day of school, saying that I had to stop shouting at kids.

I lost count of how many nights I cried myself to sleep, feeling a complete failure because I couldn’t manage to stop it. It’s not that I didn’t care about my kids. I cared so much that I couldn’t stand it when I felt they were throwing away their education. Education had saved me from a life of poverty, and I wanted them to take full advantage of it. I just didn’t seem to have quite found the right way to convey it to them.

I honestly don’t know how much of it was my karma and how much was reality, but my day to day reality was working tirelessly, at my job and at the job of being better at my job, and all I ever heard was criticism on the occasions, and there were less and less of them, when I messed up. It seemed to be the story of my life that I should only ever be criticised and not praised. 

Around that time, I received guidance from the SGI-UK Youth Division Leader, and I talked about how much of a failure I felt for succumbing to anger, and how much I resented the people who had gone to “snake me” with the induction mentor. He said two things. One, that as long as I had the best interest of the students in my heart, it was ok to be angry. I just had to find a better way to communicate it. Two, that those people had no influence whatsoever on my life. Whatever was happening was a cause that was already in my life, and was it not wonderful to have something to actually work on?

Also, at the summer course entertainment, they presented the quote “You should rise and greet [them] from afar, showing [them] the same respect you would a Buddha” within a vignette in which the main character was asking how to deal with unruly young people.

I must admit that I wasn’t especially looking forward to bowing to a couple of the little darlings, but that scene gave me my next prayer.

We of the Education division had decided to chant for 1 hour every morning before going to school. I normally chant in the morning from 5am to 6 something. For the next however many months, I chanted to truly respect my students’ buddhahood, keeping that LS quote at the centre of my prayer.

I started my second year determined to be different, to be better. I felt I had worked so hard and made such an improvement. So it was especially painful to have almost exactly the same conversation with my line manager as the year before. The anger came back, but I persevered with my prayer. Again, praise was nowhere to be seen, criticism was quick and harsh. It felt more and more unfair as the year went by, until it culminated into one of the assistant headteachers taking a special interest in me. This person, albeit awesome at her job, was not a teacher. I was, once again summoned into a meeting, where she proceeded to tell me that I made the children unsafe. It was horrific and felt completely uncalled for. Especially with the knowledge of hours of chanting for my students’ happiness and protection, and the enormous effort I had put into “lilacing” my students.

This was the perfect situation for me to, once again, ignore my karma, blame the big bad world out there, complain and whine “poor me”.

Somehow, this didn’t happen. Ok, I admit that I did a fair amount of crying and moaning, but it didn’t last for long.
In this context I did a number of things I had never done before. First of all, I decided that I did not need, at all, for her to recognise my efforts. Yes, it would have been nice to be praised, especially considering some of the very difficult classes I had, but I did not need her to do it. The Gohonzon saw my sincere efforts, and that was enough. All the teasing and the condescending comments about my shoutiness still stung, and there was a petty part of me that dreamed of one of them to run in my classroom thinking I was having a go at the kids, only to find us rehearsing a show or simply joking, but I quickly quietened it and kept chanting and studying. Mostly, I found solace in these words, originally addressed to Shijo Kingo: "Buddhism is reason. Reason will win over your lord." 

I chanted to feel compassion and gratitude for this woman. I understood that she had me all wrong. She saw a little white girl with posh education (Latin, Greek, that sort of stuff), so I had to patiently explain to her that I came from a disadvantaged background, I knew exactly how it felt to be poor, and I had been bullied both by students and teachers. 

When me and the lady had our next meeting, I sincerely thanked her for her help. I said with utter confidence that I was really grateful the school would help me develop the only part of my practice that was not already good or outstanding, and I mostly owed it to the training there that at such an early stage in my career, that was literally the only thing requiring improvement. I was thereby delighted to take part in any initiative she deemed necessary to make me a truly outstanding teacher. I could barely believe those words were coming out of my mouth. I had always believed saying nice things about myself was arrogant and had always slagged myself off. And then the incredible happened. She agreed with me. She said (with some difficulty, I must admit), that she felt intimidated by my intelligence and by my efficiency, and that she had no doubt I would succeed.

So all I had to do all along was to praise myself, and then the environment would respond? Now you tell me.

I kept chanting sincerely for my students and to appreciate myself and my efforts. I did everything she wanted. I observed colleagues, discussed strategies, applied them, etc, but mostly I chanted to show my students the same respect I would a buddha. I had not the foggiest clue how to do it in practice, but I kept chanting for it.

The last piece of the programme she had arranged for me, was to work with the lead on behaviour in the LA. This guy arrived in school and I had a meeting with him and a bunch of other teachers who had mostly volunteered to get advice from him. I should have felt incensed I was forced to go to the meeting, but I just felt determined to learn from this guy.
He asked us to choose a class we were struggling with that he could observe and give us advice for. I chose my single worst class. In many ways, the main reason this Assistant Headteacher had made me her personal project had been a couple of kids in that class, that had routinely made me cry. Since then, I had chanted many a morning to see these kids’ buddhahood.

The day of the observation came. In the feedback session, the guy remarked on the atmosphere of mutual respect that permeated the lesson. He pointed out how I had barely, if at all, raised my voice and said that in all honesty he didn’t see the point of continuing to work with me, since I was quite clearly doing fine on my own. I said I could not stop the process as I had been co-opted into it, to which he replied that he could, and would.
I was absolutely over the moon.

Both my following formal observations remarked on the rapport I had with my students. In the last one of the year I was graded outstanding, but most importantly my line manager made a point of praising my exceptional hard work in getting my behaviour management up to scratch, noting how lovely and harmonious my class felt.

A few days before that, he had ran into my form room upon hearing some shouting, only to find me and three of my tutees having a laugh looking at their year seven class pictures. Amazing what one can achieve with sincere prayer.

Another benefit of this experience is that I stopped holding a grudge against my country and its education system and determined to feel true gratitude. It is true that I was bullied and my teachers failed to protect me at best, or partook in it at worst. But it is also true that I received, for free, the sort of top class education in this country you have to fork out thousands of pounds a year for, and I was then taken all the way to my MA one scholarship after the other, graduating debt-free. 

There are, of course, many more challenges ahead. I am still fighting that deep seated karma of worthlessness, I am experiencing loss, rejection, frustration and, yet again, bullying. And I am suffering, a lot. But now I am not ignoring my karma. I am waging a war against it and one day I will win, just like I won over the shouty teacher dilemma.

The other day, I was teaching the class of the observation. The kids were a bit restless and would not take the lesson seriously, so I made a show of sinking to my knees staring at the sky (or ceiling, even), in mock desperation. The kid who had made me cry and doubt my abilities so many times stood up, and brandishing an imaginary sword, said: “I hereby proclaim you Queen of Spanish, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And now you may rise, Miss.” As Queen of Spanish, I know I can win any battle.

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